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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 18:08 GMT 19:08 UK
Disability law targets small firms
By Will Smale
BBC News Online business reporter

Suburban shopping street
The law change will affect every shop across the UK
Small businesses across the UK are facing one of the biggest legal upheavals since the introduction of the minimum wage - the extension of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Until now, companies employing fewer than 15 people have been exempt from the law, which aims to protect the rights of both disabled employees and customers.

But from Friday, 1 October, small firms will have to fulfil the same requirements as bigger companies.

Which means small businesses will have to make "reasonable adjustments" for disabled staff, such as fitting a disabled toilet; and ensuring that the company's services are usable by disabled customers, by, for example, providing any necessary documentation in a large print.

Where necessary, small firms will also have to install ramps or wheelchair lifts to overcome "access barriers" such as a flight of stairs.

Pragmatic approach

While the revised law has been warmly welcomed by business groups, the obvious snag of cost remains a very real potential problem.

London shopkeeper Javed Hussain
You have to do it whether there is a change to the law or not - you have to be as helpful as possible for all your customers or else they will go somewhere else
London shopkeeper Javed Hussain

Putting it simply, there may be some small firms that, with all the best intentions in the world, cannot afford to make the necessary structural alterations.

Both the CBI and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) lobbied the government a year ago for tax breaks for small companies that wish to improve their access but their call was rejected. Business group the Institute of Directors (IoD) has welcomed the law but called for a sensible approach.

Yet before a small businessman with access problems starts to panic, the DDA contains a level of pragmatism, hence the phrase "reasonable adjustments".

It will however not be clear what counts as a reasonable adjustment until the first cases are tested in the courts.

It is probably fair to assume that if the alteration cost is so high it would put a company out of business, it can hardly be deemed to be reasonable.

The Disability Rights Commission is the official UK watchdog and it may bring some early test cases to clarify the law.

What is clear is that being based in a listed building does not offer any exemption to the DDA, and any small company that fails to prove it has carried out all reasonable alterations could face a fine, not to forget the cost and inconvenience of having to mount a legal defence in the first place.

The incentive to change is clear - the Disability Rights Commission estimates that 50bn is spent in the UK each year by people with a disability of some sort.

Customer care

Shopkeepers in Ealing, west London, offer a cautious welcome to the law.

Javed Hussain, manager of convenience store and off licence Royal Food and Wine, has received a leaflet from the local council on the change to the law.

"We have got a fairly large door anyway, but our staff are always here to help our customers in any case," he said.

"We get a large number of elderly shoppers who uses motorised buggies, and our staff are more than willing to go around the shop for them picking up the items they want.

"You have to do it whether there is a change to the law or not - you have to be as helpful as possible for all your customers or else they will go somewhere else."

Christine Snelling, manager of art shop For Arts Sake, has already had the door widened for customers in wheelchairs.

"We do however also have a basement floor where we do our picture framing that we can't do anything about [to provide disabled access], but we are more than happy to bring everything upstairs for a disabled customer to choose from," she said.

Employees

And the law is not just about customer access, small businesses must be ready and willing to take on disabled staff.

Conquest Plant Nursery, a garden centre in Bosley, Cheshire, has taken on a partially sighted worker, Gregory Lewis, 30.

"Gregory is skilled, dedicated and full of enthusiasm," said owner Anthony Norman.

"He's a very valuable member of the team."

The company has not had to make any major adjustments, but it does now type all staff letters in a larger font.

But while some small businesses set a good example, the new law is still necessary to ensure equal rights in employment, said Bert Massie, chairman of the Disability Rights Commission.


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